New Orleans Saints

New Orleans Saints

METAIRIE, La. — Drew Brees didn’t survive all these years in the NFL by winging it.

Meticulous in his preparation, he is approaching this week as if it’s any other game week. Yes, he’s well aware the New Orleans Saints are in playoffs for the first time since 2013, hosting the Carolina Panthers in an NFC wild-card game Sunday.

He also knows that, two weeks shy of his 39th birthday, the window on his career is closing.

But to change things up this week, to put more pressure or expectations on himself and his teammates, would cheat the process. That would cheat the Saints and their fans.

That would cheat him.

“I approach every game the same way. I prepare like every game could be my last or it’s a playoff game or I’ve got something to prove and I’ve got an edge,” Brees said Wednesday. “So it’s not like, `Oh, the playoffs are here. It’s time to ramp it up.’ It’s always important.

“So for me, the preparation is no different.”

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This doesn’t mean he’s blasé about the opportunity the Saints have. New Orleans made the playoffs five times in Brees’ first eight years, reaching the NFC title game in 2006 and winning the Super Bowl three years later.

Since losing in the divisional round in 2013, however, the Saints compiled identical 7-9 finishes in 2014, ’15 and ‘16.

As the Saints limped through the season, many around the league watched in pity, wondering if the last best years of Brees’ career would be wasted.

“We went through a little bit of a roller coaster ride in ’14, ’15 with the roster turnover,” Brees acknowledged. “We were trying to find ourselves again, re-establish what we had built when Sean (Payton) first got here in 2006.

“I think that’s what was realized, was that we needed to go out and find the right type of guys. Really value character, toughness and intelligence in the way that we draft and the way that we go out and look at free agents,” Brees added. “That’s really been the process the last two years. You look around the locker room, you see those types of guys and it’s the reason we’ve been successful.”

Guys like starting right guard Larry Warford and receiver Ted Ginn Jr., third on the team with four touchdown catches. Or defensive end Alex Okafor, whose 4.5 sacks are his most since his first full season with Arizona.

Or rookies Alvin Kamara, whose versatility has helped take some of the load off Brees, and Marshon Lattimore, who leads the Saints with five interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown.

Though the Saints got off to another slow start – 0-2 for the fourth year in a row – Brees said he knew this team was different. Sure enough, a win at Carolina kickstarted a run of eight consecutive victories.

“We knew that man, we were just that close. So much closer than I think most people give us credit for. And you just needed the validation of going out there and getting the W,” Brees said. “It was just the confidence to know that the process is good. We’re doing something right here and it’s something to build on.”

There it is again, process and preparation.

Ginn said he always knew Brees was one of the best to play the game, a lock for the Hall of Fame. But he’s developed an even greater appreciation for him in his short time in New Orleans, just watching what Brees does every day.

“Just seeing how much of a routine he has, how much he does the same thing every day, it kind of helps you get into a routine a little bit. Kind of helps you get into a different situation when you’re coming into something new,” Ginn said.

“It’s been a blessing to be able to see somebody like that.”

Brees is fourth in the NFL in passing with 4,334 yards while the team is fifth in both passing yards per game (262) and rushing yards per game (129.4). His passer rating (103.9) is its highest since 2013.

Brees said he’s more diligent in taking care of his body now than, say, 10 years ago, which means he has to be more efficient with everything else. But while the way he does it might be more compressed, what he’s doing isn’t.

“I know how I learn the best. I know what I need to do in order to put the days’ worth of work behind me so I can move on to the next day,” Brees said.

The ultimate goal, of course, is another Super Bowl. But you can’t get there by skipping steps. So Brees will keep on doing what he’s doing all these years, treating every game like any other, regardless of how big it is.